Brilliant minds; big news.  Check out the first five books in our Top 10 Books in Positive Psychology - Part I circa 2011.  See the two must-read books for those new to Positive Psychology and meet the best writer in psychology.

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1.  Ben's Note
2.  MAIN ARTICLE: Ben's Top 10 Books in Positive Psychology: Part I (2011)


1.  Ben's Note

A few years ago, CTH published its first Top 10 List of Positive Psychology Books which was widely reprinted and received a huge number of inbound links, a CTH record at the time.  Our Second Top 10 List is hereBut what if you're new to the field?

Marty Seligman               Chris Peterson

Without question, the two best books for those new to Positive Psychology are Marty Seligman's Authentic Happiness and Chris Peterson's A Primer in Positive Psychology.  Marty's Authentic Happiness has inspired readers across the world.  And, since my first review, I've felt Chris' Primer was a masterpiece.  Every year since 2006, it has been the best-selling textbook in Positive Psychology.  If you're a bright professional seeking traction in this new field, I'd start with Authentic Happiness and the Primer, hands down.

Now here's our Third Top 10 List.  This is Part I with the first 5 title and includes some cool books with exciting ideas.  And I'll start with one by the best writer in psychology, Elliot Aronson.


2.  Ben's Top 10 Books in Positive Psychology Circa 2011 — Part I

1.  Not by Chance Alone: My life as a Social Psychologist, by Elliot Aronson, Ph.D.

Back in 1971--while Ed Diener was a University of Washington graduate student and Marty Seligman was focused on learned helplessness—Elliot Aronson was a young, already world renowned social psychologist.

When he was asked to help the Austin, Texas school system deal with an explosion of interracial violence, Elliot created one of the most ingenious and powerful interventions in positive psychology history.   Meticulously researched, it came to be known as the “Jigsaw Classroom”. 

With near perfect reliability, it creates a cooperative learning technique that reduces racial conflict among school children, promotes better learning, improves motivation, and makes school more fun as well.  (Compare that to the effects of a typical positive psychology intervention.)  It’s now used in schools throughout the US and across the world.  If you yearn to make a difference in the world, learn how you can help it spread

Elliot is the best writer in psychology and it shows in the stories that fill his memoir.  There are a 1000 points I could make about this beautiful book; here are just a few.

  • I love the underdog who triumphs against impossible odds. That’s Elliot who grew up in extreme poverty in Revere, Massachusetts.  He was unbearably shy and did poorly in school.  In a pivotal meeting after his father died, his extended family wanted him to forego college to support his widowed mother. That seemed reasonable to Elliot, but his older brother, Jason, said "Screw that! Elliot is going to college, and...(we) can both work our way through school." To see how well Elliot writes and to read the full story, click here.
  • He worked his way through Brandeis so short on money that he spent his sophomore year sleeping in the backseats of cars, scrounging food from fellow students.  An economics major, he followed a girl into her classroom only to hear Abraham Maslow lecturing on anti-Semitism. He changed his major to psychology the next day
  • Amazing mentors.  Maslow recognized Elliot’s promise. In fact, Elliot was to be serially mentored by three of the top 15 psychologists of the 20th century: Abraham Maslow at Brandeis (#10), David McClelland at Wesleyan (#15), and Leon Festinger at Stanford (#5).
  • Within 8 years, he had published seminal research, was a leader in the hottest research area of his day (Cognitive Dissonance Theory), had won the plum social psychology job in the country: teaching at Harvard, and was happily married with children.
  • His contribution is immense.  It's hard to exaggerate what Elliot has accomplished.  (And at 79, he's planning more books.)  He and Marty share the distinction of being among the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century.  He is the only person in the 120-year history of the American Psychological Association to have won all three of its major awards: for writing, teaching, and research.  And starting with his first year in graduate school (using an approach inspired by Gertrude Stein), he has continually devised creative, elegant ways to research vitally important topics.
  • He’s the most graceful writer in psychology. Once tasked to write a potentially dry and deadly chapter on experimentation in social psychology, he produced what’s been called “a love poem to social psychology” that has inspired thousands of researchers. He wrote the Social Animalabout social psychology, using lucid prose, fascinating examples, and vivid stories. It’s now in its eleventh edition and, as the Wikipedia observes, “is arguably psychology’s most engaging and enduring textbook.”
  • Not By Chance Alone is beautifully, seamlessly written as well. Want a taste? Here’s Chapter TwoAnd here’s the Introduction.
  • His older brother, Jason, emerges as a wise mentor. We learn from his lessons and Elliot’s own.  Once during a poker game, Elliot, 16, was bemoaning his poor cards. Jason insisted that he must always play the hand he was dealt without complaint. Anyone can play a winning hand. It’s how you play the bad hand that matters. Note.
  • Jason exemplified this lesson in his own life in the graceful, uncomplaining way he died of cancer at 32.  Now in his 70’s, Elliot is dealing with unexpected blindness. He does this with style and courage and continues to write books. His new guide dog, Desilu, is below.
  • The encounter movement.  Outside of his mainstream research, he was a leader in the encounter movement. I once hitchhiked from Austin to Maine for an intense, 2-week NTL t-group held with 37 participants at an isolated ski resort. Elliot was the preternaturally gifted leader. I found it life changing.
  • His research. He describes his most important research from the inside (This is worth the price of the book alone.) and the fascinating figures he encountered along the way: not only Leon Festinger, but Stanley Milgram, Maurice Sendak, Ram Dass and many more.
  • He writes about his love of teaching. You can get a feel for how good he is by listening to this fabulous interview. Just click here. In The Scientist and the Humanist, Marti Hope Gonzales describes Elliotís brilliant teaching style here.
  • Finally, this is simply a great read.  As Harvard's Daniel Gilbert observes: It's "engaging and beautifully written." Or as my favorite Amazon review of Elliot's memoir begins, "Oh my--what a GLORIOUS book!" "


2.  Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward, edited by Ken Sheldon, Todd Kashdan, and Michael Steger

Designing Positive PsychologyI love this book and, uncharacteristically for a scholarly, edited work, have actually read all 31 chapters.  The three editors have pulled together the brightest minds in the field—Barbara Fredrickson, Roy Baumeister, Bob Emmons, Shelly Gable, Anthony Grant, Laura King and 61 more.  The book is a feast.

Listen to Ed Diener, one of the legends in the field: "This is one of the most important books to appear in positive psychology...(If you want) to be a master of the science of positive psychology (you) must read it..."

Or Sonja Lyubomirsky of UC Riverside and author of The How of Happiness, "I couldn't put this book down!  (It) offers an unparalleled glimpse into state-of-the-art research, theory, and applications in positive psychology - from past, present, and future.  This fantastic book should be required reading for anyone - researchers and laypeople alike - interested in flourishing individuals, institutions, and societies."


3.  Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, by Martin E.P. Seligman

In 2007, I asked the famous Harvard psychologist, Dan Gilbert, (Stumbling on Happiness) about Marty’s three routes to happiness: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning.  He said he disagreed with the definition.  Engagement and meaning while valuable were simply not part of the concept of happiness.

Marty might not disagree. He says the title, Authentic Happiness, was forced on him by his publisher.  “I actually detest the word happiness, which is so overused that it has become almost meaningless”.  He now believes that “well-being”, not happiness, should be the central focus of positive psychology.

In terms of well-being theory, the goal of positive psychology is to increase the amount of flourishing in your own life and in the lives of others.  And flourishing’s five elements (using the acronym, PERMA) are (1) Positive emotion (2) Engagement (3) Meaning (4) Accomplishment, and (5) Positive Relationships.

It seems more than plausible to me to add the dimensions of accomplishment and positive relationships to the mix.  Marty then goes on to offer practical exercises that can increase well-being.

What do I most like about this book?  I have always loved Marty’s stories, both in his teaching and in his books. And Flourish does not disappoint. 

For example, the story of the anonymous benefactor who wanted to give him grant money: “So two weeks later, I found myself at an unmarked door on the eighth floor of a small, grimy office building…in Manhattan. I was ushered into an undecorated, windowless room in which sat two gray-haired, gray-suited men and one speakerphone...” Notably, within two weeks Marty had received a check for $120,000.

Or his stories of graduate admissions at Penn.  How he was overruled in arguing to accept one of the first women to win a major championship in poker.  
Then the story of the incredibly gifted candidate, Angela Duckworth.  After quoting from her brilliant admissions essay, he says “I have chosen not to exhume my essay for admission to Penn in 1964...and compare it to this one.”

Or Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum’s philosophy of life:

“Disregard C.”

Finally Flourish provides a rich array of content: GRIT
(the perseverance and passion for long-term goals); flourishing exercises; Penn's Master's in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program; Positive Psychology and the Army; Positive Physical Health, and much, much more.  I like the book.  I think you should read it.

Martin E.P. Seligman


4.  Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, by Heidi Grant Halvorson.  Forward by Carol Dweck

The world is full of self-proclaimed goal setting experts.  If you Google “experts on goals”, you get 146 Million hits.  As a rule, these self-anointed experts don't have a clue about the range and complexity of the research on motivation and goals.  They sometimes even serve up non-existent studies (e.g., the famous "1954 Yale (or Harvard written goals study").  Unlike the vast majority of “goals experts”, Heidi publishes peer reviewed research on motivation and goals and knows the leading researchers throughout the world.  She co- edited the academic handbook, The Psychology of Goals (Guilford, 2009).

With a forward by Carol Dweck that bears witness to her expertise, Heidi’s Succeed: How We Reach Our Goals, is lucid and eminently practical.  If you want new, research-based ideas, to support you in your work with goals, this is your book.  If you want to present a new workshop with material people won’t know about, it's right here.  Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, is an experimental social psychologist whose research has focused on understanding how people respond to setbacks and challenges, and how these responses are shaped by the kinds of goals they pursue.

This is probably the most practical book on the list.  I strongly recommend it.


5.  The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change, by Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom.  Foreword by David Cooperrider

If you had taken any of Marty Seligman’s six-month Authentic Happiness Coaching classes between 2003- and 2005, you would not have known that Appreciative Inquiry existed. If you had taken any of the Positive Psychology classes springing up around the US back then (I can’t speak for international classes), you would similarly never have heard it mentioned. That is changing. The 2007 AI Conference included not just David Cooperrider, but Marty Seligman and Marcus Buckingham. 

This book “describes a wildly popular approach to organizational change that dramatically improves performance by encouraging people to study, discuss, learn from, and build on what's working, rather than simply trying to fix what's not.” There are loads of examples from a wide range of organizations that show what AI looks like in action.

I love its approach of focusing on what’s working, identifying unrealized strengths, rather than going immediately to what is wrong.    AI’s beginning in 1985 predates the formal inception of positive psychology 13 years later. And Whitney and Trosten-Bloom systematically describe the newest approaches in AI that have developed over the last 5-10 years.

From my perspective, rather than being ignored, Appreciative Inquiry belongs within the sweet spot of applied positive psychology. 

For those new to AI, psychologist/coach Bob Siegfried - who teaches our classes on Appreciative Inquiry Coaching - particularly likes Appreciative Living: The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Personal Life as a first read for professionals and The Joy of Appreciative Living as a first read for laypersons.


6. - 10.  Remember, we've only covered the first five books today.  There are five more exceptional books to come in our next issue.


Note. In his five-star Amazon review of Elliot's book, Alan Gross includes a PS about Jason's poker lesson: "One corollary to the poker/life lesson Elliot learned from his brother Jason: Yes it's well not to blame the hand and to play the dealt cards in the best possible manner; however the best strategy for a poor hand is often not to play it at all, instead opting to wait for a better deal." I think Jason would have known this. Both Jason and Elliot were far too wise to somehow fail to grasp that knowing when to fold is a subset of the skill needed to play poor hands well--both in poker and life.

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About Ben Dean — Ben, Editor of Coaching Toward Happiness, is a coach, psychologist, founder of MentorCoach, and...MORE.


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